Commentary on John 1:43-51
Nathanael’s preconceptions could have kept him from seeing the Son of God. But he was given more than he could have imagined when Jesus stuck around and a friend invited Nathanael to “come and see.”
Origins and expectations
The question of Jesus’ origins permeates John’s Gospel, beginning with a soaring prologue that corresponds to the grand expectations many people had for God’s anointed one.1 Surely, they thought, he would appear in or near the great city of Jerusalem, site of political and economic power, religious authority, and God’s own dwelling place in the Temple.
If not there, then at least a place to display holy grandeur or kingly authority—in today’s terms, perhaps leading a parade in New York City or a March on Washington, streaming on multiple digital platforms or preaching from the center of a massive stadium, surrounded by gilded props and supported by an entourage of beautiful people.
Given such a context of expectation, one might forgive Nathanael for sounding like a disgruntled teenager, reflecting the prevailing view (see John 7:41, 52) while muttering derisive comments under his breath. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
Who would imagine that God’s anointed one could come from a place so distant from the center of power? A messiah from Nazareth, in Galilee?! Inconceivable!
Even today some are incredulous to hear that Christ may be found in a country store or corner bodega, or a dementia unit, a hospital room, beneath the rubble of a bombed-out city, or even lifted up on a Roman cross—places where Christ can indeed be found. God is not obliged to be confined by Nathanael’s (or our) limiting expectations. Indeed, it is the central claim of John’s Gospel that “the Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14).
What’s up with Nazareth?
Recent excavations of Nazareth suggest a thoroughly Jewish population, with evidence of quarries nearby and of craftspersons working in the village. Based on material finds around the site, the community was probably religiously conservative, particularly compared to the more cosmopolitan (but still overwhelmingly Jewish) city of Sepphoris, a couple of hours’ walk away.2
None of this fully explains Nathanael’s scorn, and we know little about him that could help to put his remark into narrative context. He is not included in any Synoptic lists of the Twelve. He appears nowhere else in the New Testament, except in this episode and again after the resurrection, where we learn that his hometown is Cana and that Jesus appeared to him and several other disciples while they were fishing (John 21:2).
The silence in the text invites us to imagine possibilities for Nathanael’s negativity. Was there a rivalry between Cana and Nazareth, as some commentators suggest, something like the divisions that often occur in congregations between long-time and new members, commitments to external outreach versus internal care, “red” and “blue” political views, et cetera?
Whatever the genesis of Nathanael’s opinion, neither Jesus nor Philip argues with him. Instead, Jesus remains nearby and Philip simply invites Nathanael to “come and see”—apparently, not a bad evangelism strategy.
Slow to believe
Nathanael’s skepticism foreshadows several episodes in John where people come to Jesus, on the way to believing, with questions firmly in tow.
Nicodemus approaches at night (frightened, perhaps, by the implication of his questions?) and shares his confusion that Jesus’ ability to do signs must mean that Jesus comes from God, and how could such a thing be (John 3:1-10)?! Later, however, he defends Jesus (even if obliquely) to the temple police, chief priests, and Pharisees (7:50-52), and he joins Joseph of Arimathea in giving Jesus a proper burial after the crucifixion (19:39-42).
The woman at the well returns to her village after meeting Jesus and wonders aloud, “He can’t be the Messiah, can he?” Her question leads many to follow him (4:28-29).
Even Thomas, who had proclaimed his willingness to die with Jesus before the final entry into Jerusalem (11:16), demands proof of resurrection just as his fellow disciples received. Seeing the evidence, Thomas confesses, “My Lord and my God!” (20:24-28).
In the narrative world of John’s Gospel, a questioning faith may well lead to believing that Jesus is the one who has come from God.
What God has given
When Jesus refers to Nathanael as an Israelite in whom there is no deceit, the referent is Old Testament stories about Jacob, namesake of Israel, known for using deception and guile in order to grasp after the things he desires. Nathanael’s frankness stands in contrast to Jacob’s duplicity.
However, Nathanael’s declaration that Jesus is Son of God and King of Israel echoes Jacob’s amazement following a dream about angels ascending and descending upon a ladder to heaven—a dream that sounds very much like the image Jesus paints at the end of our passage (Genesis 28:12, 16; John 1:51). Jacob exclaims, in words we might also imagine coming from Nathanael, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!”
Nathanael’s name in Hebrew means “God has given,” a fitting appellation.3 Jesus has given Nathanael a promise to see “greater things than these”—greater than his skepticism, greater than Jesus’ prescient knowledge, greater even than the titles he has attached to Jesus.
Tomorrow (in narrative time) at a wedding in his hometown of Cana in Galilee, Nathanael and others will be given the first of Jesus’ signs, through which Jesus “revealed his glory and his disciples believed in him” (John 2:11).
Come and see.
- Notice the piling up of titles in the call of the disciples narrated in John 1:35–51: Lamb of God (1:36); Rabbi (1:38, 49); Messiah (1:41); Son of God (1:49); King of Israel (1:49); and “the one about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote” (1:45). As John’s narrative develops, however, it is clear that the disciples’ ability to name titles does not mean they understand who Jesus is, at least not until after the resurrection.
- Ken Dark, Roman-Period and Byzantine Nazareth and Its Hinterland (London: Routledge, 2021).
- See also John 17:24: ‘Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.”